Left-wing populism? Don't hold your breath

Why "the cuts" aren't as big an issue as we'd like to think.

In my opinion, the emergence of a "left-wing UKIP" - a successful, left-wing populist party in Britain - is unlikely. But what are the chances of "a left idealistic populism refusing to accept the pragmatism of office . . . a possible wider 'no cuts, no austerity' movement", as suggested by Anthony Painter? There are a couple of significant hurdles the anti-cuts movement today that would be tough to overcome.

Firstly, and I am sorry to say it, for most people "the cuts" plural are not as big an issue as you, I, and everyone on the left would like them to be. People are worried about the changes to the NHS. Cuts to social security, and particularly to disabled people, are building up a reservoir of disgust. And councils up and down the land have faced localised save our services-style campaigns. But the missing ingredient is a diffuse consciousness that links all these up, despite the best efforts of the lefter-leaning trade unions and the far left. The cuts are necessary and there is no alternative - to borrow a tired old mantra.

Unlike UKIP, whose rise as the de facto "none-of-the-above" party owes a great deal to the rabidly right wing press, an anti-cuts left populism will not monopolise the acres of media coverage our band of "loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists" commands. Straight away, they're at a disadvantage. Secondly, the workplace and community-rootedness of the labour movement is not what it used to be. With the deliberate smashing up of whole sectors of industry, and the deliberate policy of allowing the winds of globalisation to howl virtually unfettered through the British economy has ripped away the sort of class-based organising capacity that facilitated the emergence of new left/workers' parties across the continent, for instance.

A poll tax or 10p tax moment could change things very, very quickly - but not even this incompetent shower are dumb enough to go down those roads. Organisation can very occasionally be short-circuited and jumpstarted by consciousness if an issue is significantly weighty. And, as you might expect, the political dynamics that condition the viability and potentiality of social movements alternate with the switching of governments. Which, as Anthony notes, makes the government's refusal to take advantage of low interest rates to borrow money now to invest all the more unforgivable - low rates aren't likely to avail themselves in two years time.

I'm not forecasting a "crisis of expectations" in the next Labour government. After all, the two Eds are going out their way not to get anyone's hopes up, about anything. Nevertheless there are significant revenue-neutral measures Labour can enact to get the economy going and forestall populism, whether it's of the left anti-cuts variety or the right's EU/immigrant-bashing. The mansion tax/10p tax trade off is a welcome first step in the direction Labour needs to be heading. The reversal of this government's corporate tax subsidies and restoring the 50p tax to pay for VAT cuts would put money in people's pockets. Scrapping the public sector pay freeze (and implementing strict salary ratios within it) would do the same too. Most important Labour needs to start thinking now about root and branch reform of workplace law to counter and roll back the seemingly unending trend toward casualisation and part-time working. If you want to rip out the appeal of populism, if you want to get people spending again, and, crucially, you want people to get more involved in community-type things, like joining the labour movement and supporting the Labour Party, then you need many millions more to enjoy security and stability in their everyday lives.

Populism is, in many ways, the politics of despair. Labour has it within its gift to counter that, and it need not empty the exchequer.

Ed Miliband's message: don't get your hopes up. (Photo: Getty.)

Phil Burton-Cartledge blogs at All That Is Solid and lectures at the University of Derby. He tweets as @philbc3.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle